Francois Devienne (1759 - 1803)
Flute Concertos Nos. 2 & 7
Symphonie Concertante for Flute and Bassoon
The instrumental music of the end of the later eighteenthcentury has attracted increasing attention in the last twenty years ofmusicological research. Every historical period includes a number of brilliant composerswho upstage innumerable other composers in the eyes of modern audiences, whiletoday there is, for the first time, a fuller awareness of the past and a trulycritical attitude towards cultural history. In the so-called classical period,work by Mozart and Haydn represents the spirit of an age in which both theaudience and the concert underwent changes: halls became larger to provide roomfor growing middle-class audiences, the pianoforte became established as theleading instrument on the eve of romanticism and the opera had become the mostimportant form for a composer's social standing. The fact that the two centralfigures of the period wrote relatively little for wind instruments is in itselfprobably sufficient reason for musicians and researchers now to show moreinterest in work by their contemporaries. This work is fascinating in that,through instrumental analysis and considerations of national differences, newlight is brought to bear on the development of the styles and personalities ofthe great virtuosi.
Among these last we must include Francois Devienne, whowas born in 1759 in Joinville (Haute-Marne) and died in 1803, a mostfascinating figure. Thanks to research by Emile Humblot at the beginning of thetwentieth century1, we now have a fair amount of biographicalinformation about him. He seems, at the early age often, to have been a memberof the Regiment Royale des Cravates, a military band and therefore a usualschool for brass or woodwind players at the time. He settled in Paris in 1779and took up his first position as bassoonist with the Opera de Paris. At thesame time, he was also studying the flute with Felix Rault. It seems that heentered the service of the Cardinal de Rohan as a chamber musician and was amember of the orchestra of the Loge Olympique. After a period with the SwissGuard, in 1788 he joined the orchestra of the Theatre de Monsieur as second,later first bassoonist, and at the same time played with the Paris Garde Nationale,which was to be active in setting up the Paris Conservatoire in 1795, whereDevienne would become one of the first flute teachers.
Devienne's compositions for flute, revived by Jean-PierreRampal in the 1960s, are now better known to flautists, but still not,unfortunately, to the public at large. As well as extensive educational work,including the well-known Methode of 1794, with its extremely interestingarticles on technique and style of the time, his collected work also includes eightbooks of sonatas for flute or bassoon, a variety of chamber music and no lessthan seventeen concertos. The brilliant and melodic style of these last makesthem perfect examples of the concertante classical genre, comparable only towork by the Viennese composer Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754-1812), who himselfwrote some 25 concertos for flute. Devienne's concertos, however, are,remarkably enough, frequently closer to the spirit of Mozart, who while in Parishad attended the Concerts spirituels. It was there that Devienne frequently,and with great success, played his compositions, which were brilliant reflectionsof the elegant tone of Paris at the time. Concerto No.2 in D major is anexample of grace and balance, two characteristics to be found in the fine portraitof the composer by Jacques-Louis David2, qualities which areassociated with Mozart, explaining why Devienne was called the French Mozart.
Of the seventeen concertos, only three are written in aminor key, including the seventh (1787/88), in which for the first time a new,deeper and more passionate awareness can be felt. This is expressed in some ofthe dramatic effects, like the tutti that opens the first movement andthe opening flute motif of the second solo A minor passage. The second theme isnostalgic and dreamy, contrasting sharply with the above passages and the morebrilliant passages. The Adagio has a very varied rhythm and a movingmelody, while requiring great qualities of suppleness and sound. The finale is comparablein quality with the earlier movements and is full of ingenuity: after anopening first virtuoso passage, a new idea is quite deliberately introduced thatruns counter to the suppleness and dialogue of the first section. This theme,introduced first in C major and then taken up in C minor, leads into a range ofmodulations and a partial return to E minor. This takes place in a long passagein semiquaver triplets, staccato and with rapid appoggiaturas, which leads backto the original theme. A passage that calls for technical brilliance from theflautist provides a virtuoso conclusion to what is probably the best Frenchflute concerto of the late eighteenth century.
It was in Paris that Mozart wrote two masterpieces of thegenre of sinfonia concertante, one for flute and harp and the other forfour wind instruments. Oevienne wrote seven such works, including two for thesame instruments as Mozart's KV297b, scored for flute, oboe, horn andbassoon. The remaining works are for various groups of two or three soloists,but are all written for wind instruments (two flutes, two clarinets, oboe and bassoon,and so on), a remarkable fact ensuring Devienne a special place in the historyof music and of this particular form. Typical of Paris and Mannheim, this genrewas particularly popular in France: about 150 such works were written betweenl770 and 1800. These are clearly concertos for several soloists, but the term"symphony" attracts particular attention, as reflecting the tendencytowards greater sonority. If we couple these with the audience's fascinationwith virtuoso players, the pleasant and even entertaining aspects of themelodies or of the dialogues between soloists, the reason for the genre's greatsuccess is easy to grasp.
Jean-Baptiste Breval (1756-1825), acello virtuoso, was a member of the Opera orchestra in Paris and became a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. His workincludes mainly music for the cello (sonatas and seven concertos), but also twoconcertante compositions for wind instruments, one, Opus 31, for oboeand horn and the other, Opus 38, for clarinet, horn and bassoon. Thefirst of these in particular was very popular with the public, being foundrepeatedly in programmes of the time, in the Concerts Spirituels, the Concertde la Reine or the concerts given by the Loge Olympique. Devienne adapted thiswork for flute and bassoon, a task which will have been that much easier forhim since he was an excellent player of both instruments. It is a happy piece,enriching an otherwise lean repertory for flute and bassoon with an occasionalflash of humour, a quality that Devienne certainly possessed.
Emile Humblot: Francois Devienne, un musicienm joinvillois a l'epoque de laRevolution, Saint-Dizier-Bruillard, 1909, new edition Minkoff.